Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over is not a film that can be accused of burying any lede.
In the film’s opening seconds, over grainy footage of Lydia Lunch in the 1970s, the now 60-ish Lydia Lunch tells of being propositioned by a stranger outside a New York City porno theatre at age 13. She’s waiting for the bus, but the creep is insistent, and the bus isn’t showing up. So she climbs into his car, describing her potential abductor as looking “like Robert Blake with a cheese-grater complexion.”
It’s not sex the man wants; he has different kinks. Once they’re outside the city, he pulls the car over and demands Lunch lick his tires. She complies, and in Lunch’s telling, this is how she discovered what it means to have power.
That she views this event as a signal moment in her empowerment, and not as a degrading victimization, is telling. For her entire career in music, acting, poetry and performance art, Lunch has essentially flipped the script on society’s expectations of her — as a woman in rock, as a woman onscreen, as a woman, period. She’s too busy wresting control of her destiny to fall into the misogynistic traps of the entertainment world.
The War Is Never Over is directed by avant-garde filmmaker Beth B., a contemporary of Lunch’s who has worked with her on a number of experimental movies over the decades. Given their shared history on the fringes of cinema, the most surprising aspect of the documentary is just how coherent it is for the mainstream viewer. Its structure is daring enough to maintain art-house cred — opening in media res with that riveting story of Lunch’s 13-year-old adventure, and closing with an extended performance of her current touring outfit, Lydia Lunch Retrovirus — but linear enough to be appreciated by audiences uninitiated in the No Wave scene that birthed Lunch’s talent and persona.
Weaving more than 40 years of vintage footage with modern interviews with Lunch and her many admirers and collaborators (among them Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth), the director presents a three-dimensional portrait of a relentless iconoclast. As a teenager, Lunch escaped an abusive household to arrive in New York on a Greyhound bus with a suitcase and $200. Not long after she arrived, she formed Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, a seminal noise band playing a darker, more “user-unfriendly” splinter of punk, as one of Beth B.’s interviewees succinctly puts it. Lunch herself describes music as an “exorcism.”
She would embrace a sexually hedonistic lifestyle, going to bed with random men and then stealing away with their cash. She would accept experimental film roles that bordered on pornography but always with the sense that she was somehow controlling the gaze. She recorded a pair of influential albums under her own name and would develop a continual interest in spoken-word performance, her riveting monologues delivered like a beat poet’s stream of consciousness. Her onstage rants, against warmongering politicians, predatory men in power, and a hyper-surveilled “prison planet” can border on a kind of parody, but the directness of her delivery belies any irony.
Lunch continues to have a mouth like a gutter and a mind bent toward extremity in all its forms. In the final episode of Parts Unknown (not included in The War Is Never Over but easily accessible on YouTube), she hardly censors herself for CNN. When Anthony Bourdain, over a plate of octopus, asks her if she ever expected to earn any money from her art, she replies, “I was just happy I didn’t have to suck d*** in an Iranian shoe store.” Back in Beth B.’s documentary, performing with Lydia Lunch Retrovirus, she approaches the lip of the stage, and literally invites an audience member to grab her by the … well, you know what.
The term “shock jock” has become synonymous with theatrical purveyors of toxic masculinity. If there’s a female equivalent of such a phrase, I can’t recall it, perhaps because there are so few Lydia Lunches out there pushing the boundaries of decorum to make a point. Ever the provocateur, she’s not really a performer of the present age; she wouldn’t be considered woke, because in a way she’s woker than woke — and still leaving groupthinkers in her dust.
LYDIA LUNCH: THE WAR IS NEVER OVER releases on DVD Aug. 31, and is available for pre-order. It will screen at 9 p.m. Aug. 29 at O Cinema Miami Beach, which will be followed by a live, in-person spoken-word performance by Lydia Lunch with musical accompaniment by Retrovirus collaborator Tim Dahl. Tickets cost $30. Visit o-cinema.org. Director: Beth B.; Distributor: Kino Lorber; Not Rated; Opens: Aug. 29 at O Cinema Miami Beach